Killing a central character is a huge card for a TV show to play. Essentially you’re shutting down a whole avenue for stories and closing off a network of relationships you’ve spent time constructing. If you’re going to do that, the payoff has to enrich the characters and relationships that remain. Play that card to generate compelling stories and drive significant character development, and it’s worth it. Play it just to wring some tears out of the moment and ride an emotional catharsis, and it’s manipulation.
“Stand by Me” was a masterful example of the former. Jeremy’s death, once Elena allowed herself to grasp it, utterly obliterated her, pushing her to a place where, at Damon’s behest, she relinquished her last inkling of humanity. For all the shaky plotting and shifting motivations that propelled the race for the cure, the entire storyline has been elevated by this tragic irony. The quest to make Elena Gilbert human again has culminated in her choosing to become fully a monster.
Nina Dobrev had to carry the episode even as her character was mostly caught in the undertow for the first half, and she turned in a terrific performance all the way through. From balancing both an assured mode of denial and a fragile one, to sinking into despondency as reality set in, to then escalating her flood of grief into a maelstrom of rage and hopelessness and fire accelerants, she nailed every note (“There’s no room in the Gilbert family plot”). The gradual shift in her face from ruin to numbness when Elena switched off her emotions was uncannily fluid.
Ever since vampirizing its heroine, I’ve been curious to see if the show would cross that Rubicon. Doing so could be fruitful, or it could be disastrous, but either way they’ve laid the appropriate groundwork to make such a devastating descent—realizing Elena’s oft-expressed worst fears—plausible. The episode foreshadowed early on that it might pull the trigger, too. That fear was clearly in the back of Stefan’s mind when he trailed off contemplating what would become of Elena, “now without any family...” This was the only potential outcome so unthinkable as to make both Stefan and Caroline unflinchingly accept Damon manipulating Elena through the sire bond as a necessary recourse. Even then, in the wake of her near-self-immolation, nobody put up too much of a fight when Damon ultimately decided the switch-off would be the lesser evil.
Yet for a while it appeared such drastic measures wouldn’t be necessary. Matt—who knows a thing or two about losing a younger sibling—almost got through to her, reinforcing again how theirs is quietly one of this show’s most potent relationships. Their sojourn very nearly sent the episode down the opposite path, one which still would have held true to an aspect of TVD’s thematic heart: pulling Elena back from the brink by tapping into her strongest human connection, rather than her strongest mystical one.
Ol’ Matt might’ve gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for those meddling kids and their millennia-old vengeance-fueled ghost-demon. This being The Vampire Diaries, the show can’t take its foot off the gas to mourn for too long. Enter Bonnie (none the worse for wear despite the shit that went down at Silas’s Cavern on the Green), armed with a bushel of Mystic Falls’s most abundant renewable resource: Cataclysmically insane plans!
“Stand by Me” gained some of that old TVD steam here at its midpoint, in a sequence that did about as tidy and dynamic a job possible of dumping a metric ton of convoluted exposition. It hit on every stage of the reveal (Shane/Silas to Bonnie, Damon to Stefan, Bonnie to the gang), brought in all the key opinions (most of which, suitably, boiled down to, “WTF?!”), and even built the whole thing into the crescendo of white noise that battered through Elena’s last defense. Healthy grieving just isn’t possible when one of your friends or another is always trying to magically jailbreak an entire purgatory dimension.
All because Elena’s not the only one unhinged by the tragedy, nor is Damon the worst grief counselor under the circumstances. Bonnie is wounded deeply enough that she surrendered all doubts and reason and hitched her wagon to Shane-cum-Silas and his kooky scheme of reviving every supernatural entity that’s ever bitten the dust. (Basically he’s Walter Peck at the end of Ghostbusters, and Bonnie is the Con Ed guy. Do I have that right?)
Now, this was a great episode for Bonnie, and for Kat Graham, who’s gracefully walking a fine line between understandable psychic disarray and outright bugnuttery. I’ve generally been a fan of her material all season. I think that could continue, as she’s the linchpin between the good guys and the mythical scary apocalypse monster. That said, I will be severely disappointed if this season ends with Bonnie going full-on Dark Willow. It’s bad enough that Silas has somehow seen enough Buffy the Vampire Slayer to cop The First’s M.O.; let’s try to be a little more inventive with our Big Bad, shall we, show?
– The episode’s first gut-punch moment for me: “What’s that smell?” “It’s his body.” Oof.
– I appreciated the moments spent indulging the others’ grief as well. Matt spent all day propping up Elena and Bonnie, and so couldn’t even make it home before breaking down in his own pain. Caroline, in a bit of denial, unburdened herself into the void of a voice mailbox she acknowledged Tyler will never hear.
– Damon’s mildly impressed regard for Rebekah’s eloquent sadism was a welcome spot of comedy. They should play “bad cop/worse cop” more often.
– Speaking of Rebekah, the poor girl got ditched once again, left to finish the table-setting work up in Fauxva Scotia. And hey, Vaughn was around to screw with her head, because it’s been like three days since anyone last tried to screw with Rebekah’s head.
– After so many spleen-venting conversations on that front porch, watching Elena, Stefan, and Damon stride off it and away from the burning Gilbert homestead carried an effective sense of finality, if not closure. Also it looked damn cool.
– “Aren’t you Elena’s current love? It’s so hard to keep track these days.”
– “Poison your best friend once and suspicion follows you forever.”
– “Damon Logic.” Patent pending.
– “She lost her brother. I’m not enough. Not this time.”